Music Uncovered

As the world of popular culture celebrates the 50th anniversary of the British invasion, including the arrival of The Beatles, there has been little, if any, discussion of the artists who wrote and performed the music the groups from the UK imitated or copied when they “invaded” American music. These artists, playing what was referred to as rhythm and blues, were black. Consequently, their music never crossed over to a white audience. In many cases, the music was actually banned from the radio. It was banned, not simply because the performers were black, but because the performances were considered too lascivious for the delicate ears of white American youth.

An example of a black entertainer who was responsible for some of the greatest rhythm and blues music, and whose music was ignored until covered by white artists, was Hank Ballard. During the 1950s Hank Ballard and the Midnighters made numerous recordings that were popular on the black nightclub circuit, but unknown to the white mainstream. His recording of Work with me Annie reached number one on the R&B charts but was banned by the FCC from radio airplay for its obvious sexual overtones.

The great Etta James recorded the answering song, Wallflower, which also was an R&B hit.

But, it was not until Work with me Annie was rewritten as Dance with me Henry, and recorded by the white vocalist Georgia Gibbs, that it reached number one on the national charts. White audiences would have seen the sanitized version on shows like the popular Your Hit Parade. Here is a hilarious rendition by Gisele MacKensie from May 7th 1955 when Dance with me Henry was number four on the national hit parade.

Hank Ballard and the Midnighters followed up Work with me Annie with Annie had a Baby and Annie’s Aunt Fanny, both of which made clear Annie wasn’t a ballet dancer.

In 1959 Hank Ballard and the Midnighters wrote, choreographed, and performed The Twist. But, because the group was too black, the song was covered by Chubby Checkers, who, although black, was, as his phony stage name implies (get it- Fats Domino- Chubby Checkers), a chubby, cuddly, non-threatening black man. What resulted was a dance craze that swept the nation and made Checkers a super star.

Below is an amazing episode from the very 1960s popular quiz show, To Tell the Truth, where two contestants lie in an attempt to convince the panel they are the contestant telling the truth. The fact that the panel, made up of nationally famous white media stars (including Johnny Carson in this episode), have absolutely no idea who Hank Ballard is, shows just how invisible the real black artists were. The other two contestants are black, but are conspicuous in their “clean cut”, i.e. white like, demeanor. The panel ignores Hank, asking him only one question about the origins of Rock and Roll. He answers that Rock and Roll is just another name for Rhythm and Blues, but none of the panelist seem satisfied with the answer. Kitty Carlisle is the only one to choose the real Hank, and that was because she saw him moving his body when the music was being played.


Friday Night Music

I imagine everyone is aware that the incomparable Pete Seeger died this week. I don’t have anything to add to the tributes already paid to him as a folk archivist, musician, song writer, peace activist, environmentalist, and yes, radical.

We live in a time where those who refuse to conform are vilified much like they were in the McCarthy era. If Seeger had never made a single record, he would be an American hero based upon the courageous stand he took when he was forced to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955. The HUAC committee interrogated more than 3,000 government officials, labor union leaders, teachers, journalists, entertainers, and others. They wanted to purge Communists, former Communists, and “fellow travelers” who refused to renounce their past and inform on associates from positions of influence within American society. 

When they accused Seeger of performing for Communist front organizations, he refused to invoke the Fifth Amendment, instead he insisted that the Committee had no right to question him about his political beliefs or associations.

When asked if he had performed at Communist Party functions he said:

Mr. SEEGER: I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I am proud that I never refuse to sing to an audience, no matter what religion or color of their skin, or situation in life. I have sung in hobo jungles, and I have sung for the Rockefellers, and I am proud that I have never refused to sing for anybody. That is the only answer I can give along that line.

The counsel for the committee continued to badger Seeger until he finally said,

Mr. SEEGER: I decline to discuss, under compulsion, where I have sung, and who has sung my songs, and who else has sung with me, and the people I have known. I love my country very dearly, and I greatly resent this implication that some of the places that I have sung and some of the people that I have known, and some of my opinions, whether they are religious or philosophical, or I might be a vegetarian, make me any less of an American. I will tell you about my songs, but I am not interested in telling you who wrote them, and I will tell you about my songs, and I am not interested in who listened to them. . . .

Pete Seeger was sentenced to a year in prison for contempt, but the verdict was reversed in 1962. Nevertheless, Seeger remained on a network television blacklist until the late 1960s.

He went on to record hits with The Weavers and on his own over the years. His musicianship is often overlooked because of his impact as an activist. But, as this clip of him singing “Wimoweh” from the 40th anniversary concert of The Weavers shows, he was an intense and riveting entertainer.

Bloated Floaters and Snouted Sappers


Starting today and running through the end of the month, the Boise Art Musuem features a wonderful exhibit by Idaho artist, Garth Claassen.  The exhibit consists of 85 drawings and is entitled “Bloated Floaters, Snouted Sappers and the Defense of the Empire.”  The title alone ought to be enough to induce you to see the exhibit. Read more about it here.

Who are the Bloated Floaters and Snouted Sappers?  Here is how Garth describes them:

They are people who’ve gotten themselves into some kind of predicament. People who are trying to control this and control that, working so very hard at something that may not have a real point and probably isn’t a good idea.

You look at history, these series of attempts to keep these people penned in or keep those people out, to monitor this or construct that. It’s all done with great energy. There’s a lot of action and dust and everything, and nothing happens.

Garth is a friend. In the fifteen years that I have known him, I have never heard him raise his voice or say a negative thing about anyone. I am beginning to think I understand his secret. He has the artist’s ability to see the absurdities of life and laugh.

Ever since reading Garth’s description of those who attempt  “to keep these people penned in or those people penned out, to monitor this or construct that” I have noticed a drop in my stress level. Rather that rant and fume about the wingnuts on the right Bloated Floaters and Snouted Sappers, I have made a game out of deciding who should go in each category.

So, here is my take on the difference between the two groups. A Bloated Floater is someone who is full of gas, floating untethered above the fray, spouting “truths” down at the rest of us.  Here is an obvious candidate from the media. Here , here and here are a few more. Notice how addictive this can be. I have barely scratched the surface and haven’t even included politicians, national or local.

Equally odious are the Snouted Sappers. These are people who slither under the radar, poking their snouts into everyone’s business and sapping the life out of their victims with their self-righteousness. Obviously, any religious fundamentalist with a public forum makes this list. We could start here and work our way down to the local level, but there is no point in me providing more examples. The real fun is creating your own list. Give it a try. It is a real stress reducer and worth a few laughs.

I believe, in the final analysis, Garth is right about the Bloated Floaters and Snouted Sappers, “There’s a lot of action and dust and everything, and nothing happens.”